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Is North Main the next downtown hot spot?

North Main Street near the city core has a large number of underdeveloped properties available for sale. Is it Columbia’s next hot spot?
North Main Street near the city core has a large number of underdeveloped properties available for sale. Is it Columbia’s next hot spot? tdominick@thestate.com

Main Street is bustling. The Vista is booming. Bull Street is looming. Is it finally time for North Main to shine?

Long the stepchild of downtown’s renaissance, the 5-mile-long stretch of Main Street from Elmwood Avenue to I-20 has been a corridor of promise, but not much progress, for decades.

Now, the lower part of North Main from Elmwood to the railroad trestle at Earlewood Park is set to pop. It even has a name: NOMA.

“There’s definitely momentum,” said real estate broker Chris Barczak, who renovated the 13,000-square-foot Trestle Building and in January leased much of it to the eclectic furniture store Carolina Imports.

As Main Street’s revitalization stretches toward Elmwood, many are saying it is inevitable that it will jump Elmwood into NOMA.

But NOMA’s success might not depend solely on Main Street’s fate.

With the Vista increasingly filling up with chain stores and restaurants – and with the gentrification of North Main’s in-town neighborhoods and the incremental improvements in Eau Claire farther north – NOMA is being eyed as a destination for more-local, less expensive development.

Carolina Imports was displaced by renovations to the former City Market Antique Mall on Gervais Street in the Vista, where it had been for a dozen years. The mall is being converted into restaurants and apartments.

“We needed a sort of warehouse,” owner Eva Bradley said. “It’s hard to find that downtown and (it) be affordable.”

In addition, three NOMA properties recently have been placed under contract, according to several sources, two of which are planned for restaurants – a sit-down brick oven pizza restaurant and a barbecue joint. Also, it is said a Walmart Neighborhood Market could be heading to the former Jim Moore auto dealership site, in the first block off Elmwood Avenue.

The new eateries – if they happen – will join long-standing and lone-standing Lamb’s Bread vegan restaurant, the 3-year-old craft beer and wine shop across the street called Vino Garage and North Main Bakery.

Other than that, the street is pretty much a clean slate. The reason for the interest is the affordability, ample parking – many of the lots are car dealerships abandoned for decades – and the more than 2,000 residents of the gentrified neighborhoods of Elmwood Park, Earlewood, Cottontown and Keenan Terrace, who are within walking distance.

“People here will support what’s going on,” Lamb’s Bread owner Folami Geter said. “But there’s nothing happening yet.”

‘SO VAST’

North Main is the central artery of North Columbia, the city’s largest and one of its most economically challenged districts.

It is bounded by Interstate 20 to the north, Elmwood Avenue to the south, Farrow Road to the east and Broad River Road to the west.

The area encompasses 25 organized neighborhoods on about 4,200 acres, according to a redevelopment master plan adopted by the city 10 years ago.

“North Columbia is so vast,” said Lucinda Statler, Columbia’s urban design planner. “There’s such a latent market there.”

While some of those neighborhoods, like the ones already mentioned, have benefited from a national trend of young professionals and empty nesters returning to in-town neighborhoods, most North Columbia neighborhoods are still emerging. Those economically challenged neighborhoods have given the area an undeserved reputation as seedy or unsafe, some say.

“People’s conception is that it’s the slums,” said Vino Garage owner Doug Aylard, whose business sells wine and craft beers and caters to an upscale clientele. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

They also skew the demographics of the gentrified neighborhoods and, in turn, the market for stores in the commercial corridor of North Main below the trestle, Statler said. National, regional and some local developers and retailers tend to shy away from areas where income levels don’t reach a certain level, she said.

“It’s the demographics when you put all the neighborhoods together” that is holding up development, Statler said. “Those are the numbers they’re looking at.”

But if the gentrified neighborhoods surrounding NOMA are taken alone, the average income levels would rise, said Krista Hampton, Columbia’s planning director.

“The market is there,” she said. “But you can’t rely on the traditional metrics.”

‘There’s an invisible force field’

There is another challenge, also a blend of perception and reality – the large number of homeless people who access services at the corner of Elmwood and North Main.

The Transitions homeless center is in the old Salvation Army shelter at the southwest corner of Main and Elmwood.

Hope Plaza, a homeless service center operated by Christ Central Ministries is directly across Main from Transitions.

In addition, Christ Central operates a feeding center two blocks up North Main, which results in a daily parade of homeless to and from the service centers and the feeding center Monday through Friday.

All of that makes people more likely to bypass the street, said the Vino Garage’s Aylard.

“There’s an invisible force field,” he said. “No one wants to turn left (coming from I-126 down Elmwood) on North Main.”

The presence of higher than normal numbers of homeless people is the same situation that many through the years claimed was holding back Main Street – from Elmwood to the State House. But now, that section of the street from Gervais to Laurel is undergoing a renaissance, with expanding retail and a boom in both student, young professional and empty-nester residents.

“It’s not a challenge that’s insurmountable, just like Main Street,” Statler said.

‘Banks are really not terribly interested’

A more substantive challenge is economics, according to Ben Johnson, research director for commercial real estate brokerage CBRE/Columbia.

“The problem right now is that there are interesting buildings, but banks are really not terribly interested in funding a complete renovation, even if it is for a user, and certainly not if it is for an investor,” Johnson said.

So that means it takes someone with a good deal of cash to purchase and renovate a building to make it habitable, even before the business ever opens, said Johnson, an Earlewood resident.

“At this point people are having trouble seeing North Main as that destination,” he said.

However, there is a little momentum.

In addition to the possible transactions already mentioned, in the past six months, the former If It’s Paper site was rented to a furniture consignment shop, and two parcels of property have sold.

One was a former store at 2644 River Drive, near the intersection of North Main, behind First Citizens bank. It is 2,300 square feet and sold for $75,000, or $32.60 per square foot. The other, at 2600 Main St., is a 6,600 square-foot building on the corner of Main and Summerville. It sold for $25.75 per square foot, or $170,000.

“So that is a good sign that people are bringing money to the dilapidated buildings in the area,” said Johnson, who noted that other old buildings are listed for much higher prices per square foot.

By contrast, the Five Points properties at 942-946 Harden St. sold recently for $18 a square foot – although the buildings were in very bad shape, Johnson said. Two other vacant Five Points properties, the former Masters Cleaners Site and the former Jungle Jim’s bar, both sold for $55 a square foot.

In the Vista, land for the Hyatt Hotel sold for $56 a square foot, Johnson said. The former City Market at 705-711 Gervais, which had to be completely gutted, sold for $46 a square foot. The former Carolina Wings, soon to be Twin Peaks, sold for a whopping $225 a square foot for the building before renovation.

Prices for buildings in good shape are typically much higher than run down buildings or raw land or parking lots, especially in established areas like the Vista, Johnson said.

“The Vista is just a different animal. A lot of the (North Main) property is overpriced,” he said, adding that there are a lot of empty lots. “At the prices that land is being offered for sale, between $200,000 and $400,000 per acre from what I can tell, I don’t see it moving any time soon.”

‘A lot of great building stock’

Still, the prices might meet the market soon.

Just three blocks down Elmwood, the biggest land deal in Columbia history is developing.

A Greenville developer is reinventing the old S.C State Hospital campus on Bull Street. Bob Hughes of Hughes Development – one of the architects of downtown Greenville’s resurgence, plans 400,000 square feet of retail on the 165-acre tract, along with thousands of residences and offices.

Already, a $37 million minor league baseball stadium is being built in the center of the property – $30 million paid for by city taxpayers.

Should the Columbia Common development take off, North Main boosters predict a spillover into their neighborhood.

Also, the Vista Greenway is about to be expanded into Elmwood Park, providing another connection between NOMA and the city’s busiest arts and entertainment district.

“That’s going to be huge,” said Statler, an Earlewood resident.

Also, the remaining third phase of a $64 million North Main streetscaping project is being completed, improving the entire 5-mile stretch to Fuller Avenue, south of Columbia College, creating a more attractive and inviting gateway to downtown, and encouraging more people to use it. The stretch from Elmwood to the trestle has already been improved to the tune of $13 million.

Also, if Eau Claire and neighborhoods north of the trestle continue to improve, a rising tide should lift all boats, Hampton said.

“There is a lot of great building stock that’s suitable for reuse,” she said. “It’s a tremendous, walkable streetscape. It’s going to draw a lot more people.”

Price per square foot

A sampling of recent sales of commercial sites with viable buildings in downtown Columbia

In the Vista: $56 per square foot

In Five Points: $55 per square foot

North Main at River Drive: $32.60 per square foot

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